Life and Fate Read Along, Part 3 Chapter 53

Life and Fate Read Along, Part 3 Chapter 53
Photo by Quino Al / Unsplash

This post, covering Part 3, Chapter 53 is part of The Slavic Literature Pod’s chapter a day read along of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. Learn more about our project here.

Viktor’s life is back in order. Well, it’s back in order enough. He finally has the resources and staff he needs to fully explore his wor;  he’s been embraced by the Soviet state; he can pay his bills without eyeing his family’s dwindling savings. 

There is, though, one last major piece: Maria Ivanovna Sokolova. His emotional affair is, he believes, wraps. Sokolov already knows the truth, but he’s too ill to come into work (or so he reports, anyhow); he is also set to take the helm as the director of another laboratory and may not see Viktor again. 

Lyudmila has re-established her friendship with Maria — but Viktor doesn’t worry about that. He pretends not to care when they talk on the phone. His and Maria’s liaisons are much subtler: a meeting at a park bench, a silent stroll down a street, covert telephone conversations. 

This chapter lays bare so much of what makes Viktor a difficult and compelling character. Most of the text is an internal argument, Viktor reminding himself of his wife’s shortcomings while giving effusive praise to Maria. In the same breath, however, he also acknowledges this is a distortion. Not that their marriage doesn’t have problems — it clearly has no shortage of those — but it clearly wasn’t built on false pretenses, either. The issues stem from who he and Lyudmila have grown into over their 20 years of marriage. 

Amid more general complaints, Viktor mentions two specific incidents: “He remembered everything that had gone wrong between him and Lyudmila: how badly she had treated his mother; how she had refused to let his cousin stay the night after his release from camp; how rude and callous, how cruel and obstinate she had sometimes been.” 

The first has a clear parallel to Vasily Grossman’s own life: his mother Ekaterina Savelievna was living in a Ukrainian village, taking care of Grossman’s daughter from a previous marriage, when German forces invaded. As biographers note, a dispute with his wife appears to have prevented Grossman from retrieving them before the Wehrmacht took the town. 

Ekaterina Savelievna was later to be murdered along with tens of thousands of other Jews by the SS. (Per the Garrards’ biography The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman, Grossman’s daughter was attending summer camp at the time and survived the war with her mother). Biographers add that this would hang heavily over his marriage going forward — though you may have gathered that already by its extensive inclusion in Life and Fate

(The other incident could possibly have been pulled from Grossman’s life as well, although I have no concrete proof of such. Both the Garrards and Alexandra Popoff argue that he owed his career to the influence of his cousin, Nadya Almaz. Almaz would later be arrested repeatedly over supposed Trotskyist connections — first exiled, later condemned to a prison camp — before being released in Moscow in 1939. I should again emphasize that I have no documentary proof of this, but perhaps another conflict with his wife inspired the above section.)